Back when Washington used to worry about deficits, Bill Clinton suckered a conservative Congress into avoiding hard choices on domestic spending by gutting defense. Today, President Obama plans an instant replay. Will conservatives get suckered twice?
Clinton basically used the post–Cold War drawdown of the military to reduce federal spending. It enabled him to divert Congress from addressing the serious questions of long-term entitlement spending, tax policy, and other discretionary government spending.
But Clinton’s defense cuts went beyond what was prudent, so not only did he divert Congress from dealing with long-term spending issues, he made the country less safe. That road led to 9/11 and left the Bush administration scrambling to ramp up in order to fight the Long War.
Now, here we go again.
Obama’s idea of a workable deficit deal includes even deeper cuts in defense. The Pentagon has reportedly already been told to tee up another $100 billion in defense cuts, over the $400 billion the president has already called for.
Deep cuts in defense have undeniable political appeal. They would lessen the pressure on Congress to deal with the real cause of our deteriorating fiscal condition — politically popular entitlement programs.
But over the long term, deep defense cuts are no more sustainable than current entitlement spending. Defense “savings” have costs. Readiness will plummet. That will embolden our enemies to take advantage of our weakness, and ultimately the people and Congress will insist that we respond. So we will have to whip-saw defense spending up again. Welcome to the future, where taxes are higher, deficits are bigger, and entitlement programs are still ballooning.
That is a prospect for real disaster, and it is also unnecessary. The Heritage Foundation has offered a long-term budget blueprint called “Saving the American Dream,” which fully funds defense, does not raise taxes, balances the budget in ten years, and leaves every class of Americans better off than they are now. Why would conservatives in Congress sign up for a deficit deal that does anything less?